Love That Lasts

1 Corinthians

Biblical Truth: Self-giving love is the highest expression of the Christian life.

Love’s Priority: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.

[1]  If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. [2]  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. [3] And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.  [NASU]

It is clear that chapter 13 must be studied in the context of the rest of Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth. When applied to a local church, these words become dynamite. It uncovers all the weaknesses, gaps, failures and sins in any Christian community. It is a particular challenge to any church which has seen outward success in its ministry. These words cut us down to size; they humble us, because we begin to see what really matters to God. They re-direct us as the body of Christ to our true calling. It is probably good for any congregation to assess its life together from time to time in the mirror of this chapter. This chapter needs to be linked immediately with Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in chapter 12. Paul is saying that all the most dramatic and wonderful gifts we can imagine are useless without love. God’s love completely transcends all human ideas or expressions of love. It is a love for the utterly unworthy, a love which proceeds from a God who is love. It is a love lavished on others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not. It proceeds rather from the nature of the lover, than from any merit in the beloved. This is the love which, according to Jesus, has to characterize and control the Christian community, if it is in any sense to be recognized as Christian and if He is to be recognized as God’s Son and the world’s Savior [cf. John 13:35].

[1-3]  Paul makes three strong statements about the loveless Christian. (1) Without love I offend others [1]. When spiritual gifts are exercised in love, not in a competitive spirit, the body of believers is edified. That is Paul’s constant plea throughout his discussion of prophecy and tongues in chapter 14. The inevitable result of not using spiritual gifts in love is that others are offended. The streets of Corinth resounded with the noisy gongs and clashing cymbals which were a feature of the Greek mystery-cults worship. Paul compares the tongue-speaker without love with such noisy, meaningless religion. (2) Without love I am nothing [2]. If lovelessness actively repels people from the church and the gospel, thus being the biggest single obstacle to effective witness in a community or a nation, it also evacuates the Christian of his significance before God. Without love the Christian is considered as nothing, even if he is gifted with prophetic speaking; even if he is able to understand and explain the deep things of God, man and Satan; even if he is knowledgeable about a vast field of truth and experience; even if he has the most incisive and bold measure of faith envisaged by Jesus Himself – the faith which moves mountains. It would be tempting to assume that Paul is using rhetorical hyperbole in this passage, i.e. that the full impact and value of these important gifts is diminished when love does not flow. That is not what Paul writes. If there is no love, he maintains, there is nothing of any real value in my ministry. I may be successful; I may get results; I may be admired, appreciated and applauded – but, as far as God and eternity are concerned, I am nothing. (3) Without love I gain nothing [3]. Paul is not content to draw examples only from the more spectacular or miraculous spiritual gifts. In verse 3 he goes on to incredibly self-sacrificing philanthropy and even personal martyrdom by fiery ordeal. The result is the same: without love, I gain nothing. My deeds of philanthropy and my resolute determination to remain loyal to the truth even in the face of martyrdom cannot in themselves attest my high spiritual position or the superiority of my experiences with the Holy Spirit. In all of this, if there is no love, I gain nothing.

In the context of chapters 12, 13 and 14, the point of Paul’s argument in these verses is clear. He says, in effect: You who think that because you speak in tongues you are so spiritual, you who prove your large endowment from the Holy Spirit by exercising the gift of prophecy, you must understand that you have overlooked what is most important. By themselves, your spiritual gifts attest nothing spiritual about you. And you who prefer to attest your rich privilege in the Holy Spirit by works of philanthropy, you must learn that philanthropy apart from Christian love says nothing about your experience with God. You remain spiritually bankrupt, a spiritual nothing, if love does not characterize your exercise of whatever grace-gift God has assigned you. In none of these instances does Paul depreciate spiritual gifts, but he refuses to recognize any positive assessment of any of them unless the gift is discharged in love. Principally, therefore, any particular gift is dispensable, so far as spiritual profit or attestation of the Spirit’s presence is concerned; but love is indispensable. This is not to say that Paul recognizes no other ultimate test of authentic Christianity. For instance, Galatians 1:8-9 makes it clear that Paul holds certain doctrines to be essential to Christianity. But in the disparate claims of love and of charismatic gifts, only the former is indispensable.

Love’s Practice: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

[4]  Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, [5]  does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, [6]  does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; [7]  bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  [NASU]

[4a]  If love is so fundamental, irreplaceable and determinative for our life together as Christians, we need to know more clearly what it is. A loving person will behave in a certain way; he will do, and not do, certain things because of the kind of person he is becoming, through the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit. Paul uses verbs that are all in the present continuous tense, denoting actions and attitudes which have become habitual, ingrained gradually by constant repetition. Throughout, love is personified: it is love itself that is kind, or does not boast, or the like, rather than the person who displays love, so powerfully does love take over in Paul’s thought in this chapter. It is not coincidental that these four verses perfectly describe the character of Jesus Himself, and of nobody else. Love is patient, that is, it is long-tempered, not quick to take offense or to inflict punishment. Love is kind conveys the thought of being loving and merciful. Its position in relation to patient suggests that the disposition of kindness is the positive counterpart of patience. Love does good to those who do harm.

[4b-5a]  By using five negatives Paul emphasizes that an essential part of true, Christlike love is to recognize such alien realities for what they are, and to renounce them positively and decisively. Love simply does not do these things: it does not give in to jealousy, showing-off or arrogance; it resists the temptation to react rudely or selfishly. Only the love of God, keeping us in a deep experience of His complete acceptance of us as we are, can enable us to face up to our self-centeredness, to renounce it and to look for light to shine in our inner darkness. In the love of God there is no place for asserting our rights, despising our gifts, envying our brothers and sisters, or treating them insensitively and boorishly. Such love, in any case, turns us outwards to look to the needs and the interests of others. When we notice that our behavior or attitudes are damaging or offending another person, love propels us to deal with such inner darkness through the grace of the Lord.

[5b-6]  Paul mentions three ways in which we can easily allow the weaknesses, sins and failures of others to force us into lovelessness. First, there are some people who simply provoke us, not perhaps deliberately or knowingly, but consistently and uncontrollably. It is tempting to blame such people for their impact upon us, instead of facing honestly the reality of our own touchiness. If we truly love someone with the love of the Lord, we shall see their strengths and their potential rather than their quirks and their foibles. When they do or say something which angers us, we shall be able to treat that in the context of what they are in Christ, instead of magnifying what has happened so that it consumes our vision. Secondly, Paul refers to actual wrongs committed by others. Like ourselves, other Christians sin and transgress God’s word. We may well be among those who suffer as a result, either directly or indirectly. It is crucial to recognize the menace of holding on to any such behavior, of gloating over the failures of another, and particularly of keeping a list of wrongs committed. Love does not keep an account of such wrongs but forgets as well as forgives. Thirdly, Paul focuses our attention on our attitude to sin and wickedness in general. We can fall into the trap of actually rejoicing, not in what is good and true, but in the unrighteousness done by others. We find false solace in seeing others fail and fall. But this is the reverse of love, which longs to see others stand and grow, which is saddened and hurt when another is defeated, which rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep. A particular danger is gossiping. Love does not gossip, particularly under the cloak of sharing a need for prayer.

[7]  The fourfold all things of this verse makes it plain that love is not human quality, but the gift of God Himself. In the varied circumstances and relationships of our daily lives it is only His love in Jesus which can enable us to bear, to believe, to hope and to endure. Love always believes does not mean it is gullible, but that it prefers to be generous in its openness and acceptance rather than suspicious or cynical. Love hopes for the best, even when disappointed by repeated personal abuse, hoping against hope and always ready to give an offender a second chance. Love perseveres: when the evidence is adverse, love hopes for the best. And when hopes are repeatedly disappointed, it still courageously waits.

Love’s Permanence: 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.

[8]  Love never fails; but if there are gifts of  prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. [9]  For we know in part and we prophesy in part; [10]  but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. [11]  When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. [12]  For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. [13]  But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.  [NASU]

Love never fails [8]. This love never folds under pressure of the most intense and sustained kind. This love continues through death into eternity. This is the love of God. Paul then mentions the three gifts: prophecy, tongues and knowledge. Each of these will either become irrelevant or else be swallowed up in the perfection of eternity. The disappearance of this kind of partialness is dependent on the arrival of the perfect [10]. Paul illustrates this general truth in two ways: first, he refers to growth from childhood into mature adulthood; secondly, he contrasts looking at someone reflected in a mirror with seeing the person face to face. So long as we have not yet seen Jesus as He is, we are still short of maturity, of adulthood as Christians. By His grace we have been given many gifts through which we may see more of His glory. Every gift is valuable for our growth into maturity, but the heartbeat of our relationship with God now is that He knows us, not vice versa. One day we shall also know Him. If the Corinthians majored on tongues, prophecy and knowledge, Paul focuses attention on faith, hope and love. These three qualities are the ones which abide.

RECOMMENDATION:  If you desire to dig deeply into the treasure of this chapter, then read Charity and its Fruits, by Jonathan Edwards. In this book (368 pages) Banner of Truth Trust has put together sixteen sermons Edwards preached on 1 Corinthians 13. While reading Edwards is a difficult exercise, the harvest of spiritual truth you will reap will be well worth your effort.
Questions for Discussion:

1.      What three strong statements does Paul make about the loveless Christian [1-3]? Note the test for determining if our spiritual gifts are being exercised in love is if they edify or offend others.

2.      In verses 4-7, what are the positive statements Paul makes about love? What are the negative statements?

3.      What three things must we guard against so as not to allow the sins of others to force us into lovelessness?

4.      Why does love bear, believe, hope and endure all things? Why does love never fail? What is it about the nature of love that it has these qualities?


Showing the Spirit, D.A. Carson, Baker Books.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter-Varsity Press.

1 Corinthians, Curtis Vaughan, Founders Press.

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