Last week we were provided a few glimpses into some of the reasons why Paul was writing to these Corinthians believers as we considered the first half of 1 Corinthians 12. These former pagans had at one time worshiped mute idols.[1] And though the idols to which they’d been led astray were themselves mute, ironically these believers appeared to be valuing the spiritual gift of speaking, specifically of speaking in tongues, above and beyond all others. As we’ve noted, tongues are a spiritual language in which our spirit speaks with God’s spirit. And given that even the one speaking in tongues may not understand what they are saying, tongues require interpretation in the context of worship so that all who are present may be edified. So we’ve noted how Paul was writing both to help these believers have a better understanding of tongues and also as a corrective to some of the abuses that were taking place. He emphasized that no spiritual gift or ability should be prized above any other because these gifts are given by the Triune God.[2] The reason God gives spiritual gifts is for the sake of ministering to the body of Christ.[3] Therefore whatever the spiritual gift may be, there’s no cause for boasting. Paul went on to make this point in the second half of chapter 12 Paul by using the analogy of a human body to highlight the importance of unity—believers are one body—in the midst of diversity—that one body has many parts. And he concluded by stating at the end of the chapter: “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”[4] That “most excellent way,” the way of love, is our focus this morning as we turn to 1 Corinthians 13.[5]

Now even those who aren’t believers in Christ are probably familiar with this chapter because, with its focus upon love, it’s often read at weddings. But appropriate though it may be for a newly wed couple as they begin their lives together to consider the definition of love it provides, Paul himself wasn’t addressing newlyweds. Rather he was addressing a church that was in need of teaching, discipline, and correction due to the way in which it had been prizing certain spiritual gifts—and therefore prizing those who had these gifts—in an unhealthy, which is to say an ungodly, manner. Knowing that speaking in tongues was one of these gifts casts the opening of this chapter in a completely different light for it suggests that Paul has begun with a gentle rebuke by stating in verse 1, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” In effect, Paul was singling out in a negative manner those who had elevated themselves, or been elevated by the broader community, due to their ability to speak in tongues. Therefore he let them know that speaking in tongues means nothingunless it is used for the sake of the greater community, i.e., unless it is used in a loving manner. And he raised the stakes even higher by adding that even if we were somehow enabled to speak in angelic tongues, these too, would be useless unless motivated by love. To boast in an ability to speak in tongues for the sake of allowing others see our just how spiritual we are is no better than having someone play an annoying resounding gong or clanging cymbal that make a lot of noise but do so to no, or even to negative, effect.

The second spiritual gift Paul addressed is one that one that all might agree was essential, that of prophecy. And again, though we can’t be sure what, exactly, was entailed in the gift of prophecy as referred to here, we do know that it, too, was intended to be used to build up the worshipping community and to touch the hearts of those who didn’t yet know God. Scholars agree that this wasn’t prophecy in the Old Testament sense of God using his prophets to authoritatively declare and bring his Word to his people, which word became incorporated into numerous Old Testament books. Rather by the time Paul was writing he encouraged the believing community to test all prophecies, holding on to the good and rejecting those that were evil.[6] Only good prophecies that helped the believing community better love God and each other were to be acted upon.

Next in verse 2, Paul listed the gift of faith. And, again, by this he didn’t mean the gift of saving faith—of believing that Jesus is God’s Son who came to this world that all who believe in him might be saved—for this kind of faith is given to all who believe. Rather the gift of faith mentioned here by Paul was likely faith given to meet a specific need or to accomplish a specific task within the body of Christ.[7] Yet as he did with tongues, concerning prophecy and faith Paul states in this verse, “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,[8] but do not have love, I am nothing.” Concerning the ability to “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge,” Solomon, the likely author of Ecclesiastes would no doubt have agreed for he wrote:

12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind…. 16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.[9]

As Solomon understood all too well, the possession of knowledge for its own sake is meaningless. And Paul adds that to prize our unique insights into God or his word or to view knowledge as a type of possession that makes us better than others or to see ourselves as having greater faith in God’s ability to work than others without love is, in Paul’s own words, to be nothing. Zippo. Nada. Naught. As Paul had already admonished these believers, “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.”[10] Now this isn’t to say that we need to choose between knowledge and love but it is saying that if we have knowledge, we are called to use it in a loving manner, in a way that will benefit others.

Yet as Paul goes on to note love is needed not only in considering spiritual and intellectual abilities like tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and faith, but love is required even in the good deeds we perform. As Paul told these believers in verse 3, “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Are you beginning to catch Paul’s refrain? If we do not have love as the motive for what we say and do, then what we’re doing isn’t in sync with how God would have us live. For as John reminds us, the expression of love towards others indicates that we belong to God because God is love. And if we aren’t loving others, we indicate that we neither know nor belong to God for to know God is to seek to be like him.[11] As Paul makes clear what this means is that even to do something that most would consider to be a remarkable gesture indeed, giving away all that we possess to the poor, to do so without love is to gain nothing. So, too, if we “give over [our bodies] to hardship,” that is, if we fast or practice some other spiritual discipline but thereby boast about how spiritual we are for having done these things or, according to some translations, even if we are martyred—if we give our body to the flames—but don’t have love, it’s all for naught. So, again, knowing all that has preceded in Paul’s letter, it’s impossible not to assume that what he has done at the beginning of chapter 13 is to single out but some of the ways in which gifts and acts that believers had claimed to have been given by God’s Holy Spirit were being abused by some in the church of Corinth so that Paul had to correct their abuse. For again, even good gifts—whether tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith, or sacrificial giving and living—can be spoiled if they are practiced for the sake of elevating those who possess them rather than using these gifts to serve the broader body of Jesus Christ. If exercised without love even these spiritual gifts and practices are invalidated.

And just as we suspect that, negatively, Paul has isolated certain gifts and practices that are being abused, we may suspect as well that, positively, the particular aspects of love he identifies in verses 4–7 were similarly especially lacking among these believers. Paul begins by stating that love is patient and kind. Both patience and kindness are required as we live our lives together. Patience and kindness are required as we grow from taking in spiritual milk to spiritual meat.[12] We cannot run until we know how to walk; we cannot walk until we know how to crawl. And so it is with our growth in Christ. And since God the Holy Spirit is the one who distributes spiritual gifts as he wills, Paul goes on to note that with genuine love there’s no place for envy if someone else possesses a spiritual gift we might especially desire. As we can appreciate a beautiful symphony or work of art without knowing how to play an instrument or use a paintbrush, so we can appreciate and even rejoice in spiritual gifts others may possess. Conversely, because the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us certain abilities in the first place, as Paul goes on to state, we have no cause for boasting or for being proud about possessing them. Again, love recognizes that all that we have and all that we are has its source in the God who has made us in his image, in the God who has made us for himself and for each other. Ideally love will give credit where credit is due, namely, love will give credit to God to whom it rightly belongs. Love will give glory to God, its proper recipient. The truth we are called to rejoice in is that it is God who has given us our abilities, whatever they may be, and he has given us these abilities that we might better serve and care for one another.

Next in verse 5 Paul juxtaposes dishonoring others—again, perhaps due to believing that their gifts or abilities weren’t as good or important—with being self-seeking. Putting others down for the sake of making ourselves look better simply isn’t loving behavior—which is another way of saying that this isn’t Christ-like behavior. Neither are the other items listed by Paul such as getting easily angered or keeping track of the ways others may have hurt us. No, loving behavior, Christlike behavior, as Jesus himself taught, requires that we forgive those who may have hurt us not once, not twice, but even “seventy times seven times.”[13]

In verse 6, Paul continues to press home the radical nature of love. “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Earlier in this letter Paul had rebuked these believers in Christ of some genuinely evil behaviors in which they were boasting, including sexual immorality “of a kind that even pagans”—such as these believers themselves once were—”do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud!”[14] These believers had been rejoicing in evil rather than truth. Yet because love reflects the God who is love, love also reflects the holiness of God. For the very fiber of love is moral. This is why God gave his us his law for the Fall resulted in our inability to know what loving God and loving others looked like in practice. And so, starting with Moses, God gave his people what we now refer to as the Ten Commandments. And if, as Jesus taught, the two most important commands of God’s law are to love him and love others,[15] we might well ask: What does loving God require? According to the commandments God gave to Moses, it requires:

That no other gods but he be acknowledged;[16]

that we not make our own gods;[17]

that we not misuse God’s name;[18]

and that we honor the Sabbath he has given us by keeping it holy;[19]

So, too, we need to be taught what loving others requires and about this God teaches in his commandments that we are to honor our parents;[20]

And not murder one another;[21]

And not go after one another’s spouses;[22]

And not steal anything from one another;[23]

nor lie about one another;[24]

nor seek to have what others possess.[25]

This was but the beginning of God teaching those who were his how they ought to live; this was but the beginning of God teaching those who were his how they ought to love. And this teaching needs to be heard and owned by each generation.

Next Paul noted the positive aspects of God’s holiness as he went on to state in verse 7, love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Love calls us to have each other’s backs. It demands that we risk being hurt by one another by trusting one another. Love insists that we not give up on one another but keep cheering one another on in hope. It promises that we will stick with one another until the end, come what may. Again, Scripture teaches the deeply moral fiber that comprises love, that requires genuinely loving behavior to look to the interests of others.

Therefore the point of spiritual gifts isn’t the gifts themselves but the use of these gifts for the sake of expressing our love to God and each other. It is only when we do this that we’ll recognize, verse 8, that “love never fails.” Wonderful and useful though prophecies may be, “they will cease.” Wonderful and useful though tongues may be, “they will be stilled.” Wonderful and useful though knowledge may be, “it will pass away.” For no matter what gift or ability we may have, the fact of the matter is that it has been given to us for the service of the whole not to exalt ourselves. No matter how precious we may consider our piece of the pie, it is nothing apart from the rest. Even if we have the gift of knowledge, verse 9, this is only one small piece of the bigger picture; even if we have the gift of prophecy, it, too, is but a small part. “[B]ut when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.” Though commentators aren’t in agreement about what this “completeness” or, in some translations, “the perfect one” refers to, it’s reasonable to assume that this is a reference to God in Christ returning to complete his plan of redemption. In other words, whatever gifts we may have are for the sake of serving Christ and his church until he comes again. Therefore spiritual gifts are but temporary tools that one day will no longer be needed.

This side of heaven is but the childhood of our eternity. Our earthly existence is but the short part of our eternal existence with our Father, Son, Holy Spirit and one another. One day we will be adults; one day we will be complete even as Christ has ever been complete. But for the time being, verse 12, “we see only a reflection as in a mirror” and we “know [only] in part.” Yet one day, when we are with Christ, “we shall see face to face.” One day we will “know fully, even as [we are] fully known.” But for the time being, this earthly sojourn is a faith walk, not a sight walk. Therefore during this earthly journey we are in need of what are known as the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. And whereas all three are needful this side of heaven—faith in Christ, hope in his promises, and love as we live before and with him and one another—one day, when we are with Christ, only love will be needed. For love is what perseveres. Love is what will carry us over from the earthly part of our lives to the heavenly part when we will one day see love face to face in our loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love perseveres not only throughout our earthly lives but for all time.

Ultimately the message of 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t one intended for couples who are about to embark on upon a new life together but it’s a message intended for a different type of couple. It is a message intended for the Church which is the bride of Christ, its groom. It’s a message of instruction that we are called to own as a community. For even after we’ve come to a saving faith and knowledge of Christ, we still need instruction. We still need to be taught what loving behavior looks like in practice. We who have been given and are indwelled by God’s Holy Spirit who unites us to Triune God and to one another are expected to love as he is love. We are expected to help one another, by his Spirit and by his Word, be and become the best version of our selves possible.

Now how we implement these biblical principles at Linebrook will look different than how Paul called the church at Corinth to implement them. So far as I am aware, no one here has been given the gift of tongues, or of prophecy, or the ability to fathom all mysteries and knowledge, or faith that is able to move mountains. Nor has anyone, so far as I known, given all they possess to the poor or given over their lives to martyrdom. But that doesn’t mean that what Paul is stating here doesn’t apply to us for the deeper message of this chapter is that our motives, the condition of our hearts, matter deeply to God. This is true in the negative as when Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount taught that not only is murder wrong but hatred also will be judged;[26] not only is adultery forbidden but so also is lust.[27] But isn’t it interesting that motives also matter in the positive things we do. Even within the context of worship, we can be unloving. So, for example,

If I preach to you to exalt myself or if I otherwise preach without love for you as my motive, I cannot claim to be serving Jesus Christ;

If we sing for the sake of gaining praise rather than from our love for God and one another, we sing in vain;

If we pray for the sake of being admired and noticed for our spiritual depth, then, to use Jesus’ words, we have received our reward;[28]

If we tithe more than any other that we might be acknowledged and praised for our generosity, that, too, is its own reward. For Jesus calls us instead to be like the poor widow who, when she gave all that she possessed, sought to do so secretly. Yet Jesus knew her heart and praised her over and above the rich who were giving far more than she yet were doing so boisterously for the sake of being noticed.[29]

We begin to get the idea. If we do anything for the sake of showing off or exalting ourselves rather than for the sake of pleasing God and serving one another, then we’re not behaving in a loving manner. The condition of our hearts matter. Our motives matter.

And so, dear sisters and brothers, let us to take to heart these truths. We can know that love is the most excellent way because it’s the way of our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, and you and I have been saved that we might be and become like him.

So let us remember not only that it is God who has given us the gift of life, but that he has given us life that we might know and love him and know and love each other;

Let us remember that any gift or ability, spiritual or otherwise, that we have should be used to point to and glorify him, not ourselves;

Let us remember that even our material possessions are on loan from him and that he calls us to sacrificially and lovingly share these with those whom he’s placed in our lives;

Let us ever ask our gracious Lord to help us search our hearts, consider our motives, and change us that we might be selfless and giving even as he is;

Let us help one another to be the people God in Christ has called us to be;

Love perseveres—so let us persevere in love. Let us continue to put into practice now living our lives in a loving manner for if we do so, we will be well equipped and well prepared to live in a loving manner whenever our gracious Father in heaven calls us home to himself.

Let us pray.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:2: You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:4:There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit [i.e., the Holy Spirit] distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord [i.e., Jesus Christ]. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God [i.e., the Father] at work.; 1 Corinthians 12:11: All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

[3] 1 Corinthians 12:7: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

[4] 1 Corinthians 12:31b.

[5] I also preached on this chapter on January 31, 2016, Grounded in Love, Living in Love. And on 1 Corinthians 12:4–14, 13:1-8a on March 26, 2017, Holy Spirit Gifts, Motivated by Love.

[6] 1 Thessalonians 5:19–21: 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.

[7] For example, see Acts 14:[8]–9: In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed; James 5:15: And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.

[8] When asked by his disciples why they were unable to cast a demon out of a man’s son, Jesus replied as stated in Matthew 17:20: “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

[9] Ecclesiastes 1:12–14, 16–18.

[10] 1 Corinthians 8:2–3.

[11] 1 John 4:8: Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

[12] 1 Corinthians 3:2a: I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.

[13] Matthew 18:21–22: 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times [or seventy times seven].

[14] 1 Corinthians 5:1b-2a.

[15] Matthew 22:34–40:34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” and Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”

[16] Exodus 20:2–2: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3 You shall have no other gods before me.

[17] Exodus 20:4–6: 4 You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

[18] Exodus 20:7: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

[19] Exodus 20:8–11: 8 Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

[20] Exodus 20:12: Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

[21] Exodus 20:13:  You shall not murder.

[22] Exodus 20:14: You shall not commit adultery.

[23] Exodus 20:15: You shall not steal.

[24] Exodus 20:16: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

[25] Exodus 20:17: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

[26] Matthew 5:21–22: 21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

[27] Matthew 5:27–28: 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

[28] Matthew 6:5–8: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

[29] Luke 21:1–4: 1 As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”