This morning’s passage is the well-known “love” chapter from I Corinthians 13. You have probably heard it read at almost every wedding you have ever attended—and, yes, Ron and I had it read as part of our own wedding service. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with reading this Scripture at a service intended to commemorate the love of two people who are committing their lives to caring for one another.
But I am grateful for an opportunity to dig deeper into this passage. Scripture isn’t addressed to only one demographic but is addressed to all who profess to love, follow, and serve our precious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. So to assume that this passage only has something to say to those who are married is to focus our eyes on a tidal pool during low tide while neglecting to notice the vast ocean from which it has formed. In fact this love passage is written by the apostle Paul to a church family, not a couple.
So I want to begin this morning by asking a question. You don’t need to respond out loud, but just think about how you might answer the following question: How would you define love? If you had to provide a definition of love without using a form of the word “love” to do so, what would you say? I suspect that among possible answers or at least things that first come to mind, might be that:
“Love” is a positive feeling or predisposition towards someone or something. So someone might say: “I love my church” or “I love my boss.”
Or perhaps love is a feeling of warmth or affection towards another being as in “I love my friend” or “I love my children” or “I love my dog.”
Perhaps you think of love as including a physical attraction towards another person: “I love my spouse” or “I love this person I just I met”—if you believe in love at first sight, anyway!
Or maybe love has to do with the enjoyment of something “I love pizza” or “I love to sleep in” or “I love when the Pats win”!
What these various definitions and examples have in common is that they are anchored in a feeling of good will. But what happens if our feelings change? If we’re honest, I think we would all admit that at some point in our lives, we have had the experience of moving from feeling love towards someone to either cooling or losing that feeling or even to feeling anger or hatred towards that person. I think this most commonly happens in dating relationships—this person that we were so certain was so perfect turns out to be less than perfect. But it can also happen in friendships through a disagreement with someone or experiencing a loss of some kind and wondering why someone you considered a friend isn’t there for you. Sometimes love is lost even in family relationships. You may have experienced or know someone who, when it came time to deal with the settlement of an estate, began to view others who stood to inherit as the enemy. The point here is that if we limit our definition of love to a feeling, then love can’t be trusted because love can go away should feelings change.
Recently I came across some excerpts from Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, a best-seller when it was first published in 1989. In it, he offers his own view of love which suggests that love isn’t a feeling but an action. Listen to this excerpt from Covey’s book in which he is talking with someone about their marriage:
“My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” I asked.
“That’s right,” he reaffirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her,” I replied.
“I told you, the feeling just isn’t there anymore.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love—the feeling—is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
This is an interesting excerpt, isn’t it? It goes against what I was just saying about love being a feeling that can change and therefore be lost. Covey is challenging the notion that love’s essence is grounded in how we feel. So which is right? Is love a feeling or is it a verb?
Well, let’s see if this morning’s passage can provide some insight. But, as usual, I think we’ll best understand what Paul is saying if we have a little background to this chapter first. I Corinthians is addressed “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours” (1:2). But very early into this chapter, it’s clear that there are problems in Christ’s sanctified church in Corinth. After expressing gratitude that these former non-believers have received Christ Jesus’ grace and noting that “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9)—and therefore into fellowship with each other, Paul says the following in verses 10–12 of chapter 1:
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[Peter]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
From this point forward, Paul teases out the nature of these divisions. Here’s a quick summary of them:
In Chapter 3, he begins by noting that these Christians are so worldly that he has to address them as infants, or those who are worldly, rather than as adults in Christ, or those who are spiritual. Therefore he must feed them spiritual milk rather than solid food because their behavior towards one another is evidence of their infantility or worldliness. In Paul’s words, “For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?”
Later in 5:1 Paul states that “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.”
In chapter 6, Paul addresses ongoing disputes in the church by encouraging them to work out their differences rather than taking each other to court. He exhorts them that it’s better to be wronged and cheated, even by a brother or sister in Christ, than to take them to court. “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” he asks. “8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.”
In Chapter 8 he has to address the matter of eating food sacrificed to idols that is causing these former Gentiles to stumble in their faith. Though believers know idols aren’t real and therefore are permitted to eat any food, nonetheless he warns “9 Be careful…that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”
In Chapter 10, Paul goes on to warn them not to partake of food sacrificed to idols. Again, though the idols themselves are nothing, “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?”
In Chapter 11, Paul rebukes these believers for the way in which they celebrate the Lord’s Supper—which also involved a shared meal. Rather than everyone being allowed to partake in this meal “one person remains hungry and another gets drunk” (v. 21).
Finally, in chapter 12, Paul turns to the gifts of the Spirit and the divisions these gifts are causing. He notes that since these gifts are given by the Holy Spirit (v. 4, 11) for the common good (v. 7 ) then there is no cause for boasting whether one’s gift is a word of wisdom or of knowledge or faith or healing or miraculous power or prophecy or spiritual discernment or speaking in or interpreting tongues.
This background of division and unholy living provides an important backdrop to I Corinthians 13 because it helps us gain some insight as to just why Paul is making the points he is making in the first place. These Christians needed to be taught what loving lives look like. This church was far from perfect and Paul was in a position to correct these brothers and sisters, whom he loved, and teach them what Christian love should be.
Paul begins by addressing those who speak in tongues of men or angels—which may be reference to a spiritual language or earthly tongues. If it’s a spiritual tongue then he’s referring to a gift he values for in the next chapter he states that he speaks in tongues more than anyone. Yet in the context of worship, he says, in essence: Keep your spiritual tongues to yourself unless there is someone to interpret which would then allow all who are worshipping to be edified along with you. We shouldn’t be selfish even in the exercise of spiritual gifts but should always be considering others. And this is why Paul states in chapter 14, demonstrating that he practices what he preaches, “18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” To speak in tongues without interpretation is unloving. It is like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal because only the individual speaking—only the individual making the noise—is enjoying it.
And so it is with all spiritual gifts. In verse 2 of chapter 13 Paul says “2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” If we understand all of our abilities and gifts—even if they’re spiritual gifts—as being given simply for our own use and enjoyment rather than for the sake of helping others, then these gifts are worthless. Our gifts are meant to be shared to edify others.
Even a spiritual gift as essential as faith requires love. Even if my faith is strong enough to move mountains, if it isn’t accompanied by love—if it isn’t used for the service of others—then it’s only for show. It’s only for my own satisfaction and therefore falls short of what God intended.
Next Paul notes that even if we give away all that we have to the poor and end up in hardship, without love, we’ve gained nothing. Another possible translation for this verse is even if I surrender my body to the flames, a reference to martyrdom, this, too is nothing without love. So perhaps Covey is wrong. Perhaps love isn’t simply an act. Perhaps it isn’t simply a sacrifice. Paul is saying that even doing the right thing falls short of the meaning of love if the right thing is done without love.
Having indicated the importance of the right heart attitude—namely consideration or love for one’s brother or sister—even in, or perhaps especially in, the exercise of spiritual gifts, Paul now goes on to state positively what love is or what love looks like.
True love—love as God intended—is patient—and kind—and not envious—and not boastful—and not proud (v. 4).
True love—or love as God intended—does not dishonor others—it is not self-seeking—it is not easily angered—it does not keep a record of wrongs (v. 5).
True love—or love as God intended—does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth (v. 6). It’s an interesting contrast, isn’t it? Don’t we expect Paul to say that love doesn’t delight in evil but in the good rather than the truth? But maybe this is a distinction without a difference. In looking up the definition of “true” I found this: “in accordance with fact or reality.” So maybe truth isn’t just about the truth or falsity of a statement; maybe it’s bigger than that. Maybe truth, as God sees it, requires not only orthodoxy—right belief—and orthopraxy—right practice, but also orthopathy—right feeling. Love rejoices with the truth. Maybe this is why doing the right thing—speaking in tongues, prophecying, having knowledge of mysteries, or a faith that can move mountains, or giving away all we have to the poor—means nothing because our hearts also have to be in the right place.
Paul goes on with his list:
True love—love as God intended—always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (v. 7). True love is ever-watchful. True love is ever-vigilant. True love is ever-faithful. True love refuses to give up.
Have you ever had someone suggest that a good way to read I Corinthians 13—especially this section in verses 4–7—is to substitute your name for “love” so that it now reads (and I’ll use the pronoun instead of anyone’s name): “You are patient, you are kind, you do not envy, you do not boast, you are not proud, you do not dishonor others, you are not self-seeking, you are not easily angered, you keep no record of wrongs, you do not delight in evil but rejoice in the truth, you always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere”? That’s a humbling measuring rod to consider, isn’t it?
Yet isn’t true love defined by God himself? In I John 4, John tells us:
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
So, on the one hand, because from the beginning all people have been made in the image of God, all people, regardless of whether or not they have a saving faith in Christ, are able to love. But as fallen people, we need God to show us—we need God to teach us—what true love looks like. Ultimately, John tells us, the truest expression of love we’ll ever know is that God in his Son, Jesus Christ, loved us so much that he died for us, taking our sins upon himself, and giving us his righteousness in exchange so that we, like the Corinthians, can be called saints or holy ones. We are holy not by virtue of our obedience buy by Christ’s obedience and the subsequent righteousness he gives us. And so by God’s Spirit, we are able to know and receive the amazing sacrifice and gift of love that the Son, our Savior and Lord, has provided on our behalf. And, if we have turned to him, this should be evident in how we love and treat one another.
So perhaps a better exercise is to place not our name, but God’s in verses 4–8: “God is patient, God is kind, God does not envy, God does not boast, God is not proud, God does not dishonor others, God is not self-seeking, God is not easily angered, God keeps no record of wrongs, God does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth, God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails.” Again, I think it is always necessary to begin with God because, as those who have fallen away from him, our ideas of what love looks like are but a shadow of his glorious light of love. But, having begun with God, we should, of course seek to imitate him—with the guidance of his Written Word and the help of his Holy Spirit and the fellowship of one another with our heavenly Father. Again, as John reminds us “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (I John 4:12).
Paul ends this passage by returning to the spiritual gifts. Unlike love which never fails, prophecies, this much-sought after spiritual gift, will cease. So, too, tongues, will be stilled; so, too, the gift of knowledge will pass away (v. 8). Our problem is that we think of this earthly life as the final word—as the be-all and end-all of our existence—but it isn’t. Paul reminds us that what we know and prophesy is only partial but one day our knowledge will be complete for one day we will be with Christ. Paul is likening the earthly part of our existence to the human growth we experience in transitioning from childhood to adulthood. When we were children, we talked and thought and reasoned like children but upon becoming adults, hopefully we learned something and were able to put these elementary ways of speaking, thinking, and reasoning behind us (v 11). The life of faith in Christ is similar. During our earthly lives, we are on a faith-walk, not a sight-walk. We see only a reflection as in a mirror—or I like the translation, we see in a mirror dimly. The mirror reflection is a dim one because in the day in which Paul is writing, mirrors would have been made from a polished metal, like bronze, and therefore reflections were dim unlike our glass mirrors. But one day, when Christ has returned and completed his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, we’ll see face to face. Throughout our earthly lives we can know only in part. But one day, when our faith becomes sight, we will know fully, even as we are fully known (12). This is what is known as a divine passive—in other words we will know fully even as we are known fully by God.
And this is why throughout our earthly lives faith, hope, and love, these three pillars of our walks with Christ, remain. But of the three love is the greatest because love continues on into our eternal lives.
In heaven we’ll no longer need faith for we’ll have sight—we’ll have a full knowledge and experience of our heavenly Father, Son, and Spirit.
In heaven we’ll no longer need hope for we’ll have received the object of our hope—eternal fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
But love is the thread—or perhaps the unbreakable cord—that will carry us from our earthly lives to our heavenly lives because love comprises God’s very nature and in heaven we’ll experience that love in a measure far greater than even our greatest experience or imagining of love on earth could ever capture or express.
I think what this morning’s passage teaches us is that love, biblically defined, is far more than our human definitions or conceptions of love which get things partially right. By definition, love requires relationship with others but Scripturally understood a loving relationship with our Christian family, with our brothers and sisters, with each other should include not only doing the right thing—being committed to treating one another in the way that Scripture teaches—but also feeling the right way towards one another or doing what we do from the heart, for the right motive. What we have in I Corinthians 13 is the flipside of what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount. In his sermon, Jesus notes that outward action alone isn’t the measure of sin, but also what is in our heart. So adultery isn’t simply the act of adultery, but also lusting after someone in your heart (Matthew 5:27–28). So, too, murder isn’t simply the act of killing, but also includes being angry with another person in our heart (Matthew 5:21–22). Vices aren’t only acts, they are also thoughts, motives, and feelings.
Here Paul is telling us that as is the case with vices, so it is with virtues. Virtues aren’t merely outward behavior, but also include our thoughts, motives, and feelings. To exercise spiritual gifts—or great faith—or give away all that we have to the poor—or even to die for others without love is to miss the mark. So doing the right thing in and of itself doesn’t qualify as love, Scripturally understood. Though God certainly wants us to do the right thing, he wants more for us. He wants our relationships to be full. He wants us to care for one another, not grudgingly, but cheerfully. He wants our relationships with one another to be genuine—to be marked not only by loving acts but he wants those loving acts to be spurred by loving motives and to result in loving feelings for each other. And if our motives are grounded in love as Scripture defines; if our motives are grounded in the character and nature of the loving God who made us in his image, redeemed us by his Son, and indwells us by his Spirit, then and only then will you and I be able to live in love with our gracious LORD and each other as God intended and demonstrated for us in his Son, Jesus Christ.
Let us pray….
 3:1–4: Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
 6:1–8: If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2 Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4 Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6 But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! 7 The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.
 8:1a 1Now about food sacrificed to idols: 4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
 I Cor. 10: 14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. 18 Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? 19 Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
 I Cor. 11: 17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
 I Cor. 12: 1Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
 I Cor. 14: 1Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue[a] does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues,[b] but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues,[c] unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. 13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer,[d] say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
 I John 4:7–12: 7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.