Take up your preferred Bible and read 1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1. Myself, I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.
Love is the virtue at the center of our identity.
Now that the turkey is reduced to leftovers, we put Thanksgiving behind us and think more about Christmas. I know we have Christmas overachievers in our church family; you already have your gifts bought, probably wrapped, and either hidden or placed carefully under your tree. The underachievers who will wait until Dec. 24 OR LATER to shop and all the rest of us are going to be out and about the next three weeks.
One of the things we experience while out and about, especially this time of year, are strangers doing “random acts of kindness” to other strangers. This week, Richard Hanson had a great idea to improve the custom. His idea was to have a card prepared explaining that your act of kindness was not random at all, but was the product of a love-relationship with Jesus Christ. Do the act, leave the card and have a “silent witness” of Jesus.
We have printed several of these cards for your use. Let me recommend you take a few of these and when you buy lunch for the people in line behind you or pay for the purchases of the person in line ahead of you, give them one of these cards and put the face of Jesus on your kindness.
J.B. McPhail wrote, “Love is the fabric of a life well lived.” Acts of kindness are seasonally appropriate and give evidence of good character. If you use these cards, you will add witness to service and improve both, with eternal consequences.
- Context: THE GREATER GIFTS, THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY,
THE WAY OF LOVE (12:31 + 14:1).
There are three expressions Paul used that provide context for this teaching, so it’s important to interpret these first.
The first is, EAGERLY DESIRE THE GREATER GIFTS. Paul wrote about Spiritual Gifts because his original teaching had been corrupted by false teachers for their purposes. The Gift of Tongues had been exalted as being above all the others, so Paul countered by saying there are greater Gifts than Tongues. Paul didn’t identify which Gifts are GREATER, but in chapter fourteen, he made it clear that the Gift of Prophecy is a more useful Gift than Tongues.
The second phrase is THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY. This is Paul’s transitional statement, the way he introduces this chapter about love. 1 Corinthians 13 is a passage lifted out of its context possibly more often than any other in the Bible.
Paul wrote about Spiritual Gifts in the chapter before and after. Ch. 13 is NOT a parenthesis, but part a chain of reasoning covering chapters 12-14. In chapter 12 he introduced the reader to the Spiritual Gifts, listing and defining them as God’s way of growing churches. In chapter 13 he puts them in proper perspective vis-à-vis LOVE; the Gifts are ways to express and enact love. In chapter 14 he showed how misuse of the Gift of Tongues messed up worship in the Corinthian church.
Paul made it clear that LOVE is superior to t Gifts; it is THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY. The Greek word for LOVE here is agape. The word was used only once in all the secular Greek texts which survive into modern times. This word was taken up by New Testament authors and the Church to convey the ultimate love given by God to humanity. It is the deepest, most spiritual version of the three Greekk words for LOVE. It is the ultimate kind of LOVE. It is not superficial, sensual, or sentimental.
The third phrase is FOLLOW THE WAY OF LOVE is in 14:1; LOVE is a WAY of life. We are to pursue this virtue in our daily living and ultimately, in our character.
- Without love, even the Spiritual Gifts are powerless (13:1-3, 8-10)
Without love, TONGUES fail to communicate (1) and will ultimately be STILLED (8). LOVE is the difference between merely making noise and communicating in a godly way. Without a translation, public use of the Gift of Tongues only succeeds in making noise and worse, may irritate the Body of Christ, like the clang and bang of a GONG and CYMBALS, say. The GONG and CYMBALS were used in Old Testament worship (see 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 13:8; Psalms 150:5) and also idol worship; not referred to in a derogatory way. Instead, there’s just not a lot you can communicate with a GONG or CYMBALS. We need to make words, not just noise. One aspect of love’s superiority over Tongues is that LOVE will continue to exist after the Second Coming, while the Gift of Tongues will cease (8).
Without love, the knowledge and faith bestowed by PROPHECY amounts to NOTHING (2) and will ultimately CEASE (8). The Gift of Prophecy can involve FORE-telling the future but it is mostly FORTH-telling; interjecting the truth where people are misunderstanding or misbehaving.
MYSTERIES and KNOWLEDGE are variations of the same Gk word. They refer to deep knowledge of hidden and significant things. In Paul’s time as in ours, “moving mountains” is an expression for overcoming great challenges (see Mark 11:22-23). BUT – done without love, even great achievements are NOTHING. After Jesus’ Second Coming, there won’t be any need for the Gift of Prophecy because all survivors will know God’s will (see JMH 31:33-34).
Without love, GIVING has no benefit (3). The kind of sacrifice Paul describes in verse three is total, even to the point of giving up one’s life. In modern terms we might paraphrase Paul to say, “Even if I become such a workaholic that I suffer burnout”. This may be a reference to the fiery trials of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abenego in Daniel 3. Notice that Paul did NOT say in verse eight that giving will cease. Heaven will be a place of ultimate and true giving (never false or for evil, only good).
Our knowledge is, at best, partial and immature (8-12). It requires love to make it valuable.
Our knowledge is always partial. People who ignore this fact fall into a vice that makes people hard to live with: the arrogant assumption they know it all. Paul identified this vice in 1 Corinthians 8:1, Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. KNOWLEDGE PUFFS UP means that knowledge can lead to pride. The Bible teaches that only God is all-knowing, so put your pride in park and get real!
Our knowledge is always immature. Growing old and maturing are not the same thing. Growing old happens automatically; the longer we survive, the more birthdays we accrue. Maturing takes time, so it looks similar, but maturing is a process that happens by intention and application of hard work. Spiritual maturing, the greatest of all kinds of maturity, happens only with hard work and the help of the Holy Spirit.
The more we learn, the more we have to admit there is more we CAN learn. It takes a maturing person to admit there is still room for self-improvement and then to take up that challenge. There is no reason to be “puffed up.”
In heaven (WHEN COMPLETENESS COMES, v. 10), our knowledge will be full and mature. Now we see God only as He is reflected in human beings – sometimes a very poor likeness – but then we shall see Him FACE TO FACE.
(Corinthian mirrors of polished metal were famous in the ancient world – Paul refers to them here.) In heaven we will KNOW FULLY, even as God now has perfect knowledge of each of us.
- The qualities of true love (13:4-8, 13).
Paul expressed the qualities of LOVE positively: LOVE IS…
– PATIENT (4) = it overlooks small offenses; resists becoming resentful; is active, not passive.
– KIND (4) = it thinks of ways to help others.
– Joyful in the TRUTH (6) = lovers are happy with honesty.
– Unfailing (8) = as God is love, love will always be needed, appropriate, and powerful.
– Maturing (11) = childish ways of thinking and speaking giving way to adult means are Paul’s way of symbolizing spiritual maturity.
– Protective (7) = it helps, doesn’t hurt unless pain is necessary for healing.
– Trusting (7) = by being trustworthy. Loving people have discernment but start with positivity.
– Hopeful (7) = Negativity always hinders and hurts. Hopeful people give others the benefit of the doubt.
– Persevering (7) = will not give up on people and is willing to endure adversity in order to love.
– The greatest of all virtues (13) = HOPE and FAITH are important, even essential virtues. They will all remain for eternity, but LOVE is t GREATEST.
– You could summarize all ten of these virtues as being having a focus on someone other than self. Those who truly love are focused on God first, others second, self last.
Paul also expressed the qualities of LOVE negatively: LOVE IS NOT…
– Envious (4) = it is not materialistic; it does not want what others have.
– Boastful (4) = it does not seek superiority over others, nor is it characterized by “one-upmanship” and an insistence on “winning” arguments.
– Proud (4) = it is not arrogantly centered on one’s achievements and qualifications to the point of feeling entitled.
– Dishonoring (5) = it is not so self-absorbed as to disregard the well-being of others, even to the violation of God’s standards. It doesn’t withhold respect.
– Self-seeking (5) = this vice sums up this entire section. The other eight vices explain how to recognize self-centered people.
– EASILY ANGERED (5) = it’s focus is not on one’s self manifest in a short temper and/or perceiving insults or injuries where none were intended.
– A recorder of WRONGS (5) = it does not withhold forgiveness. When we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we may be asking for a world of hurt. Selfish people hold grudges.
-Delighted with evil (6) = it does not derive a wicked happiness when seeing someone else “get what they deserve” or get away with wrong-doing.
Horror is not a genre I enjoy, so I rarely read or watch it. One of the most horrifying movies I’ve ever seen has no monsters or killers or violence of any kind. It is a film shown to us in elementary school, called “Cipher in the Snow.” It is the short story of an ordinary school kid who walked off the school bus one morning and fell over dead. His teacher undertook to understand what killed Cliff.
The film was based on a story by Jean Mizer, a lady who worked as a teacher and guidance counselor, published in the NEA Journal in 1964. It was produced by Bringham Young University and has been used extensively for anti-bullying education and moral training.
Although the film does not come out and say so explicitly, it is clearly implied that Cliff died from a lack of love. The teacher finds that Cliff’s parents divorced and he had no friends at school. There was no one there to love him.
It scared the willies out of me, but I took the lesson to heart. The film illustrates the disaster that is a loveless life.
Love is the virtue at the center of our identity.
Love is one of the easiest things to talk about and sing about. Everyone wants to celebrate love and everyone wants to receive love. It’s not so easy
to do. It’s not always part of our nature or personality to be loving, especially not at the high standard God sets for love.
It’s much easier and more natural for us to love self first, or substitute legalism for love and then make excuses to conceal our lack of love. Love is not optional for a follower of Jesus, it is essential, indeed, the defining aspect of our character.
Seek ways to love. Act on opportunities that present themselves. Love is too important to be kept waiting, so get to it. And, there’s no better time than Christmas to go about proclaiming and enacting the love of Jesus Christ.