Growing in the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
THE MORE EXCELLENT WAY
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Intro: Today’s text is one of the most famous chapters in the Bible. It has often been called, “the love chapter.” It is likely familiar to you, even if you have never been taught it within the context of 1 Corinthians. Christians throughout the centuries have written songs using its words, and have made art out of its sentiments. But we must be careful in how we interpret this chapter. It is important that we limit touching such a thing of exquisite beauty and holiness with our soiled, clumsy hands. The purpose of 1 Cor. 13 is to show that agapē love is the narrow way of the Christian life, and to insist that this kind of love must govern how we exercise all the gifts of the Spirit as we minister to one another. It is necessary to rescue this text from the sentimental quagmire of romantic occasions and greeting card theology it has so often been plunged into. The common use of this text in weddings has linked it in the minds of many with flowers and dresses and cakes and kisses. But 1 Cor. 13 is not about romance in any sense whatsoever. Such images are far removed from Paul’s original concerns. He did not write about agapē love to rhapsodize about marriage; he was writing about the need for mutual concern and consideration within the congregation in how we use our spiritual gifts. This passage is originally an impassioned vision of the “more excellent way” in which members of the Corinthian church should treat one another. The question that should surface immediately for our church is: How do our own actions and relationships within our fellowship express – or fail to express – our love for each other? Love is the criterion by which we should assess all that we do. Having said that, we must quickly add that love does not mean today’s worldly definition of tolerance as “uncritical acceptance.” Paul’s vigorous confrontation and rebuke of the Corinthians throughout this very letter proves that. The same love that “rejoices in the truth,” will also require us at times to speak difficult truths to those whom we love.
WHAT IF I FUNCTION IN MY SPIRITUAL GIFTING WITHOUT LOVE?
Remember that love is not a higher and better gift, but rather, it is a “way” (12:31b). It is a manner of life in which all the gifts are to find their proper place.
When love is absent…Paul begins with some hypothetical possibilities.
Below are three statements that describe various religious practices, all of which are declared futile where love is not present: speaking in tongues (v.1), prophesying and working miracles by faith (v.2), and penitent self-deprivation (v.3).
1 Cor 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
Tongue-speaking was a revered mode of a communication with the superior heavenly world. But even something as glorious as speaking with the tongues of angels is of no value without love.
No language on earth or in heaven is to be compared with the practice of love. It is far too easy to be fascinated by eloquent discourse, or to be hypnotized by the magic of words, and to pass over what matters most of all.
Anyone who is taken up with saying rather than doing has become nothing more than sound.
I am only making noise.
1 Cor 13:2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
If I receive specific inside information from the Lord…if I possess the sum of all wisdom both human and divine…if I come across truths that I could not otherwise find out on my own…if I have miracle-working faith…but am lacking love, then none of it counts.
This makes me a showman without substance.
Matt 7:21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
Matt 7:22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’
Matt 7:23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’”
I give away nothing of value.
Any exercising of spectacular gifts must happen within the framework of love if they are to have any significance at all.
1 Cor 13:3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
“bestow all my goods” = giving away my necessary resources in small amounts (“piece by piece”) to large numbers of people.
How sobering to think that a person may be so generous that he makes himself destitute, and yet be completely lacking in of love.
What if I lovelessly exercise the unbending resolve of the 3 Hebrew teenagers – Shadrach, Meschach, & Abednego – by choosing a fiery death over compromising my convictions?
Paul is saying that it is possible for a person to make spectacular sacrifices without love. He may be dedicated to the highest ideal, but only through his own pride and desire for credit and acclaim. If so, he gains nothing.
I receive no benefit.
People in the first century commonly saw great merit and value in deeds charity and in acute suffering.
Paul totally rejects those ideas. He insists that there is nothing gained by self-sacrifice where love is absent. Love is the one thing needful. Nothing can make up for its lack.
HOW SHOULD I EXERCISE MY GIFTS IN THE CONGREGATION?
When love is present…
1 Cor 13:4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
with patience (suffers long) – This is the opposite of “short-tempered.” He calls for patience with people rather than with circumstances.
Luke 18:7 And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
This patience with others is certainly a God-like quality.
in kindness (is kind) – Love reacts with goodness to those who mistreat it. It gives itself in kindness to serve others.
without jealousy (does not envy) – Love restrains the inner rising passions of jealousy that reside in everyone’s sinful nature.
1 Cor 3:3 For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?
Prov 27:4 Wrath is cruel and anger a torrent, but who is able to stand before jealousy?
Love is not displeased at the success of others.
in humility (does not parade; is not puffed up) – Paul uses a word picture that means, love is not a “wind-bag.” Love is not compatible with all forms of pride. Love is concerned to give itself, not to assert itself.
1 Cor 13:5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
with respect (does not behave rudely) – this nullifies anything that is disgraceful, dishonorable, or indecent. Love avoids the whole range of unseemliness.
selflessly (does not seek its own) – Love does not insist on its own way. Self-centeredness is the very opposite of love.
1 Cor 10:23 All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify.
1 Cor 10:24 Let no one seek his own, but each one the other's well-being.
without irritation (is not provoked) – Love is not touchy or overly-sensitive. Here, it means not easily angered.
Eph 4:26 “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath,
Eph 4:27 nor give place to the devil.
There is a righteous place for anger, but that is a passionate opposition to evil, not a selfish concern for your own rights.
Karl Barth – “The neighbor can get dreadfully on my nerves even in the exercise of his particular gifts. Love cannot alter the fact that he gets on my nerves, but it can rule out my allowing myself to be provoked by him.”
No one is led by the Spirit into irritation and a quick temper.
with benevolence (thinks no evil; keeps no record of wrongs) – Love does not take notice of every little thing that people do and hold it against them. It takes no account of evil, nor does it harbor a sense of injury.
HOW SHOULD I RESPOND TO OTHERS WHEN THEY EXERCISE THEIR GIFTS IN THE CONGREGATION?
1 Cor 13:6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
overlook the wrong while applauding what is right
It is all too characteristic of human nature to take pleasure in the misfortune of others.
Much of what is passed off to us as news today is the reporting of disasters and evil deeds. Wickedness appeals to fallen humanity.
But love is not like that. Love takes no joy in evil of any kind. Instead, it rejoices with the truth. Love shares truth’s joy; it cannot rejoice when truth is denied.
Leon Morris – Love conceals what is displeasing in another and does not drag it out into the pitiless light of public scrutiny.
After telling us what love is not, Paul ends this section with four powerful actions that positively characterize agapē.
1 Cor 13:7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
tough out the difficulties (bears all things) – love persists in a hostile world, awaiting the coming of Christ.
Matt 24:12 And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.
Matt 24:13 But he who endures to the end shall be saved.
give the benefit of every doubt (believes all things) – always eager to believe the best; this does not mean that love is gullible, but that it does not assume the worst (as is the way of the world). It keeps its faith.
display confidence for the future regardless of the present situation (hopes all things) – this is a positive, forward look; it is not an unreasoning optimism which fails to account for reality. Instead, it is a refusal to take failure as final.
Love is the confidence that looks to ultimate triumph by the grace of God.
persevere no matter what (endures all things) – here, love is an active steadfastness. It is the endurance of the soldier in the heat of battle who is undeterred and immovable.
HOW LONG WILL LOVE GOVERN?
1 Cor 13:8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
Spiritual gifts have a shelf-life of between now and the Return of Jesus. Love has no end.
Love is as permanent as the natural world. It will never suffer ruin in this present age. It is a flame that cannot be put out.
Song of Songs 8:6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, jealousy as cruel as the grave; its flames are flames of fire, a most vehement flame.
Song of Songs 8:7 Many waters cannot quench love, nor can the floods drown it. If a man would give for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised.
Prophecies, which tell us God’s present priorities for the church, will stop. It makes sense that when we stand before the Lord there will be no place for the prophet, and no reason for his prophecies.
Likewise, tongues will be stilled. In the very presence of God there will be no reason and no place for the kind of revelation that tongues bring.
Also, the painfully acquired knowledge of earthly things will pass away in the immediate presence of the Lord.
1 Cor 13:9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
1 Cor 13:10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
Researchers in every laboratory in the world understands the statement, “we know in part.” The more we learn, the more we realize we do not know.
We also “prophesy in part” which means that God does not reveal everything, so that the prophet gives us but a partial glimpse of truth.
“The perfect” is the appearing of the Lord Jesus at the last hour. When the consummation is reached, all that is partial disappears.
Love governs until the perfect appears.
1 Cor 13:11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
Here is an illustration of the contrast between the partial and the complete from normal human life.
It is natural enough for a child to act like a child. All his/her talking, thinking and reasoning are done in immaturity. Paul contrasts this reality with an adult. He was no Peter Pan, refusing to grow up.
He exercised the functions of adulthood with resolve and determination. He put childish ways behind him. He would not be ruled by immature attitudes and underdeveloped intellect.
The immaturities of childhood are put aside when you become an adult. So also, the church’s spiritual gifts will be put aside on the Last Day when Jesus appears.
Therefore, we must not assume that any believer who is used powerfully by the Lord to minister to others in spectacular ways by their spiritual giftings have achieved some sort of advanced maturity.
From heaven’s perspective, it is still the babbling and giggling of children! (celebrated but not the final product)
1 Cor 13:12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
This verse distinguishes between the perfect and the imperfect.
Our knowledge of God in the here and now is imperfect and will be dramatically different in the next world.
The city of Corinth was famous for its mirrors made of polished metal. But few Christians would have been able to afford a mirror of good quality. The reflection in these lesser mirrors would be hazy, unclear and somewhat distorted.
What is seen in a mirror like that is described as “dim” (enigma, riddle) – so that the expression means “indistinct.”
NEB – “Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.”
The knowledge that our spiritual gifts bring is like the picture of our world reflected indirectly in a mirror (not false but indistinct).
Love will be the way until The Way arrives to take its place.
1 Cor 13:13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Faith, hope, and love are pre-eminent. They are “ways” that rise above the gifts of the Spirit. Nothing may stand with them.
Faith lasts into the coming age because it is essentially trust in God and commitment to God – something all believers will continue in heaven.
Hope, in the NT sense, is one of the great abiding realities. It is linked with God Himself who is the “God of hope” (Rom 15:13). And because we believe that heaven is a dynamic kingdom of celebration and discovery, hope will continue there.
It is fitting that the final word in this chapter is “love.” It is the essence of God. Love occupies the supreme place.
God cannot be said to exercise faith or hope, but He certainly loves. Indeed He is love (1 John 4:8).
Paul to the Corinthians: “The important things are not tongues and prophecy and knowledge, but faith, hope and love. And there is nothing greater than love.”
Only when love presides over our common life in the church will the spiritual gifts find their rightful place and achieve the purposes for which God has given them to us.
1 Corinthians 13 should encourage us to step back from even our most cherished projects and ask, “Why am I am doing this?”
If we cannot honestly say, “I am doing this for the love of God and in the love of God,” then the legitimacy of the whole enterprise must come under serious doubt.
You cannot merely decide in one day to start loving this way. These are learned patterns of behavior that must be cultivated over time inside a local church body that models this kind of love.
That is, we must learn patience; we must be taught how not to keep score of wrongs done to us. None of it comes naturally. The church should be a school to cultivate these habits.
We must carefully consider how to reform the church so that we can more fully devote our energies to learning how to love.