1st Corinthians 13
When I was about 14, I knew everything. My pastor’s wife was helping with a youth function and asked us which chapter in the Bible was the chapter of love. I answered, with great conviction, John 3! I was, alas, wrong, though she was complimentary of my guess. That honor goes to 1st Corinthians 13. Paul introduces love as the “more excellent way.” Inquiring minds immediately want to know, more excellent that what? That, of course, was the subject of the past few chapters of his epistle. The immediate context of Paul’s comment makes it clear that love is superior to the best spiritual gifts. He has just given us a list of the spiritual gifts, so let’s review them.
They include, in descending order I believe, apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healings, helps, administrations and tongues. Well now. Since I would classify myself as a teacher, do I get to look down my nose at lowly miracle workers and mere healers? Benny Hinn, watch out! Of course not, the very thought is absurd. Or is it? Surely no one could be haughty over a gift they have been given. Right?
What has Paul been talking about for the last three chapters at least? There were those in the Corinthian church who liked to stand out from the crowd. At the beginning of chapter 11 it was the women who were covering their heads in some way as a sign of respect for their husbands. It is obvious that some of the women or their husbands were seeing more in that covering than was needed. Given all that we have read about the Corinthians, it would be reasonable to conclude that they were becoming puffed up about the way they were being submissive. Really? Something that God designed to be a sign of real and honest respect and submission became a point of pride. In that pride, there was no concern for the other parties. Indeed, because this lady was so much more submissive and therefore so superior to that lady, there was no basis for a sisterly relationship to develop. Fellowship is broken.
Then he moves on to the Lord’s Supper and the very same theme comes up there. Greedy and selfish folks forget about their poor brothers and eat and drink to excess while the poor do without. Communion was designed by God to be a great blessing to his people, but the Corinthians corrupted it so badly that he was making them sick and killing them for their abuse of it. Their sin was not seeing that the Body of Jesus truly existed in their hand was supposed to spur them on to care about the Body of Jesus that truly existed in their brother. Instead, the bread and wine became a reason to party, to shame poor brothers, and ultimately to despise the church.
Next came spiritual gifts, and their performance with those blessings was right in line with what it was in Communion and head coverings. They wanted the showiest gifts so that everyone in the church would notice them. They spoke all at the same time, because they felt that what they were doing was surely the most important thing in the service. They judged one another based on the star quality of the gifts they had been given. The result was that the gifts God gave them to build up their church were being used to tear it apart.
In light of all of that, Paul tells them that there is a more excellent way. From their perspective, they worried about a better way to get noticed, or a better way to feed their own selfish desires. From Paul’s perspective, the more excellent way had to do with the unity of the body. The issues that they faced as a congregation were the result of perverting one of God’s blessings to them. God gave them wine and bread as a fellowship meal meant to strengthen the bond between brother and brother as well as between God and men. Look at Ephesians 4:11 – 16. He gave them apostles, prophets, teachers and so on to bring them to unity and in that unity they would achieve individual and corporate maturity.
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
The Corinthians’ problems caused Paul to give them a remedy. In prescribing that remedy, however, he does not take anything away from the abuse of gifts, disrespect of communion or lack of marital submission that had occasioned their problems. In other words, his prescription does not include abandoning communion or ignoring church offices and gifts. The reason I say that is that is a very common thing for us to think that “all you need is love!” Love is indeed what is needed, but that love must match Paul’s description in order to accomplish the cure. Let’s consider verses 4 through 7 of chapter 13.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This is a pretty tall order. Given all that we know about the Corinthians, how far do you think they got along this particular road to love? In 2nd Corinthians 7:8 – 11 Paul describes what happened when they read his letter. If those folks can repent, anyone can repent.
For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it; though I did regret it. For I perceive that the same epistle made you sorry, though only for a while. Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.
Love is not a feeling that must be maintained about a Christian brother. I know for a fact that I get on some of your nerves. If love requires that you have consistent warm and fuzzy feelings for me, then we’re probably in trouble. What does Paul say? Love suffers long. This is a great way for Americans to start thinking about love. Love and suffering do not go together for us unless we’re being all romantic and breaking up and making up. The romantic ideas come to us easy and natural, and we just don’t know how to put love and suffering together in a meaningful way.
Love and suffering go together when we start to put the interests of others ahead of our own. There are several levels on which this works. Is there someone that drives you crazy? It could be an adult or it could be any number of children. Suffering love starts when you look for ways to serve the irritating person instead of either avoiding them or looking for ways to run them off. When you make the decision to love – regardless of your lack of warm and fuzzy feelings – then it will be possible for you to suffer through the irritation in loving support of your brother or sister.
Love is kind. Kindness is a real challenge. Bear in mind the image of the enthusiastic and self-absorbed Corinthian in worship or communion, absolutely ignoring those around them. Then hear the words, love is kind. What does that mean? It means that I am considerate of those around me. It means that I respond, not with irritation, but with patience. That requires that someone besides me is first in my heart.
Love does not envy. Here is another mouthful. The only way for this to work is for me to delight in what someone else has. Success for my brother or sister is not failure for me. Envy is a poison that destroys fellowship. It is a powerful weapon for sowing discord among brothers. Many are falling victim to it in our country now as one class of citizens is set to envy and punish another class of citizens.
Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up. Assuming that the Corinthians were not completely ignorant of the purpose of God for their spiritual gifts, their practice was completely wrong-headed. Drawing attention to oneself is not a function of love; it is a function of self-seeking pride.
Love does not behave rudely. How many of the difficult situations that occurred in Corinth could have been avoided if only those involved were polite to one another. Think of the result: Brother Alexander notices that Brother Epaphroditus has no bread or wine for the love feast. Instead of ignoring Epaphroditus, Alexander invites him to share. At the end of the day, Alexander has not shamed Epaphroditus or despised the church and God has not struck him dead. Christians would display much real love if they were simply be polite to one another.
Love does not seek its own. Are you constantly looking for your own advantage? In business when you have to look out for the interests of shareholders or investors, that might be an acceptable thing, but in a church or a family it is asking for disaster. When we love our brother, or wife or child, we ought to be constantly looking for ways to advance their causes, not our own.
Love is not provoked. Let’s face it, there are times when someone does something mean to us on purpose. The loving response is not to flare back and give them more than they gave you. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek and indeed he set the example for us. Remember that the result of his turning the other cheek is eternal life for you. What benefits will you spread in the world by following his example? How much better will your relationships be if you are suddenly the peacemaker?
Love thinks no evil. When you are attacked, or ignored, or snubbed, it is very easy to assign a wicked motive to the person who did this. Love does not do that, but rather just the opposite. Love never thinks evil of a neighbor or brother. It is unnatural to be gracious inside our own minds when we suffer at the hands of another. However, it is the love that God commands us to have for one another.
Love does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth. If you have been attacked and your attacker is hit with some judgment or catastrophe, it is difficult to resist the urge to dance in the end zone, but love rejoices when truth triumphs.
Loves bears, believes, hopes and endures all things. Love is the secret to survival as a Christian. God has given us this one way to triumph in life.